The American DREAMers: Life in the Land of Missed Opportunity

Written by

U.S. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke
U.S. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke Rep. Clarke was first elected to Congress in November 2006 and represents the new Ninth Congressional District of New York. Prior to being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Clarke served on the New York City Council representing the 40th District in Brooklyn. As an activist, a community organizer and now as a legislator, Rep. Clarke’s boldness, compassion and love for humanity has allowed her to become an effective leader and an outspoken advocate on numerous issues of great importance to her constituents. Currently in the 113th Congress, Rep. Clarke sits on the Committees of Homeland Security, Ethics, and Small Business.

While in search of the American Dream, many immigrants have made unimaginable sacrifices to create a better life for their families. Some arrived to our shores legally with temporary visitor, worker or student visas which they have overstayed.

Others traveled with their parents as young children or entered without inspection and remain undocumented.

Regardless of how they entered the U.S., these women, men, and children have lived in the shadows of our nation, avoiding the glaring eyes of government – fearing detention or deportation by immigration authorities and doing the best under the circumstances to be “model citizens.” For years, they have struggled to lead wholesome lives, and try to make valuable, meaningful contributions wherever they may find themselves due in large part to their inability to legalize their status and fully participate in our civil society.  

Calls for comprehensive immigration reform continue to echo across this nation and seemed to fall on deaf ears, until the 2012 general election when Latino voters focused our discourse. For the first time since my election to Congress in 2006, a real and earnest push for comprehensive immigration reform has risen to the level of a legislative priority. 

Several of my colleagues in the House of Representatives have expressed their willingness to address the broken and antiquated immigration system that has caused significant delays in visa processing and family reunification. Still, many have agreed to disagree in the ongoing debate on exactly who will meet the specified criteria and the extent of the benefits these applicants will receive under the law.

Today, due to the efforts of many advocacy organizations within Black America, the face of comprehensive immigration reform not only includes Latinos, but also immigrants from throughout the African Diaspora. There are over three million Black immigrants in the U.S., and an estimated 400,000 immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America who are undocumented.

Despite these statistics, voices from the Black community have been placed at the forefront of our national debate. Though their experience may vary, the Black immigrant and Latino populations share the same aspirations – to become U.S. citizens, pursue a college education, and obtain employment.

The DREAM Act offered a pathway to citizenship for certain eligible students, but unfortunately has not been signed into law. Several states have drafted their own versions of the bill, enabling students to attend college and universities under the in-state tuition rates, but more must be done to protect the future competitiveness of our nation, such as expanding the age and education requirements for eligibility. Unfortunately, the current DREAM Act legislation does not cover those who have “aged out,” due to the loss of their derivative status. Many immigrants came to the U.S. past the age of 16 years old, after completing their secondary school education and would not meet the two-year high school requirement.  They too must be considered if we are to truly be comprehensive in our approach.

Through the Obama Administration and under the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the implementation of Deferred Action which would cease the deportation of “certain young people who were brought to the United States as young children, and do not present a risk to national security or public safety.”

Millions have immigrated to the U.S., globally recognized as the land of opportunity, and struggle to attain the American Dream. The time has come for us to reform our immigration system; improve and maintain the integrity of our border security; and reflect all populations who seek to embrace the values of our nation, regardless of their race and ethnicity. There is a great potential that has not been realized among Black immigrants. I echo President Obama’s call to invest in the education of our youth, to create new opportunities for their development, and expand in the exploration of science, technology, energy, and mathematics. This can be accomplished through various means with students seeking those opportunities who were born here, as well as those who desire nothing more as immigrants than to apply themselves in this national endeavor. The Diversity Visa Program which was created as a tool for natives of underrepresented nations, particularly Continental Africans and Eastern Europeans, to immigrate and eventually become residents has been an effective means of extending the American Dream to those for whom the possibility has been beyond their means. This is one such pathway of availing ourselves of the talents we need to be competitive. 

Studies have shown that immigrants of African descent tend to obtain more college education than any other immigrant group in the U.S. and yet earn lower wages in comparison to their peers. In 2011, Black immigrants had the highest unemployment rate at 12.5 percent.

As we move ever closer to legislating a new 21st Century immigration regime, it is crucial for us to take stock of the efficiency of visa processing for students, families, and immigrant workers, in addition to, embedding fairness and justice into an antiquated and discriminatory legal process which has barred many applicants from legal residence in the U.S. as a result of the aggravated felony provisions and very limited judicial discretion, as well as, reform the detention and deportation process for individuals with minor offenses.

In order to protect the gains our economy has made since the recession, we must move forward in a new direction – one that leads to an inclusive and not exclusive civil society. We can no longer ignore the value, importance and significance of Black immigrants to our society. The majority of Americans agree that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform. Our small businesses and economy depends on it. 

I represent the new ninth Congressional district of New York which is comprised of immigrants from around the globe. I am obliged to speak on behalf of my constituents and other like-minded individuals, to rigorously engage in this conversation and pass sound legislation that will benefit and preserve the diversity of our communities and by extension strengthen the fiber of our nation.

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